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Preliminary characterization of nitrogen and phosphorus in groundwater discharging to Lake Spokane, northeastern Washington, using stable nitrogen isotopes

February 29, 2016

Lake Spokane, locally referred to as Long Lake, is a 24-mile-long section of the Spokane River impounded by Long Lake Dam that has, in recent decades, experienced water-quality problems associated with eutrophication. Consumption of oxygen by the decomposition of aquatic plants that have proliferated because of high nutrient concentrations has led to seasonally low dissolved oxygen concentrations in the lake. Of nitrogen and phosphorus, the two primary nutrients necessary for aquatic vegetation growth, phosphorus was previously identified as the limiting nutrient that regulates the growth of aquatic plants and, thus, dissolved oxygen concentrations in Lake Spokane. Phosphorus is delivered to Lake Spokane from municipal and industrial point-source inputs to the Spokane River upstream of Lake Spokane, but is also conveyed by groundwater and surface water from nonpoint-sources including septic tanks, agricultural fields, and wildlife. In response, the Washington State Department of Ecology listed Lake Spokane on the 303(d) list of impaired water bodies for low dissolved oxygen concentrations and developed a Total Maximum Daily Load for phosphorus in 1992, which was revised in 2010 because of continuing algal blooms and water-quality concerns.

This report evaluates the concentrations of phosphorus and nitrogen in shallow groundwater discharging to Lake Spokane to determine if a difference exists between nutrient concentrations in groundwater discharging to the lake downgradient of residential development with on-site septic systems and downgradient of undeveloped land without on-site septic systems. Elevated nitrogen isotope values (δ15N) within the roots of aquatic vegetation were used as an indicator of septic-system derived nitrogen. δ15N values were measured in August and September 2014 downgradient of residential development near the lakeshore, of residential development on 300-ft-high terraces above the lake, and of undeveloped land in the eastern (upper) and central (lower) parts of Lake Spokane. Significantly lower δ15N values were measured within aquatic vegetation downgradient of undeveloped land in eastern Lake Spokane relative to both near-shore and terrace residential development land uses. Conversely, significantly higher δ15N values were measured downgradient of undeveloped land in central Lake Spokane relative to the two developed land uses. These results guided the location of subsequent groundwater sampling in March and April 2015 from 30 shallow piezometers driven into the near-shore area of Lake Spokane. Nitrate plus nitrite concentrations in groundwater discharging to Lake Spokane downgradient of undeveloped areas were significantly lower than those measured downgradient of both near-shore and terrace residential development. Orthophosphate concentrations in groundwater were not significantly different with respect to upgradient land use.